The Alluring Lie of Balance

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When I first went to grad school, we had a half-day orientation for new TAs. And the first diagram on the whiteboard explained how to balance our time. That speaker posited that we needed to use 50% of our time for our own coursework, 50% of our time for our own research, 50% of our time for our teaching and grading, and 50% of our time for our family and personal life.

And although we all chuckled and went on about our day, I’m here to tell you that it’s worse than that. Because if you want to do any of those things well, they’re going to take way more than 50% of your time.

I just saw a remarkable, brief video of the guitarist Kaki King describing her relationship to her music. She grew up as a near-blind, awkward lesbian girl going to religious schools in Georgia… her entire emotional repertoire was poured into the one outlet she had, her guitar. And as Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) now says, “There are some guitar players that are good, and there are some guitar players that are really fucking good. And then there’s Kaki King.” That’s the result of twenty years of obsession, not a hobby that she fit in around her other responsibilities.

In order to be astonishingly good at something, you have to give yourself permission to be a little mis-shapen. You have to recognize that you will be giving up some things you value. You have to recognize that you will be a weirdo. You have to recognize that there are people who will want things from you—maybe even people you love—to whom you just can’t respond the way you’d like, because you’re immersed doing that one thing that haunts you.

I no longer remember where I read this quote: “We don’t get what we want. We get what we want most.” So… what do you want most? Family? Comfort? A gym body? You can probably only pick a couple of things at a time to fully invest yourself in. And if your curiosity isn’t one of them, then a doctoral program may not be right for you.